Editor's Note: This article is part of our annual Women in Charity series. Check back throughout the month for more stories of dynamic Muslim women working in various charitable endeavors and why they do what they do.
For Amina Shams, philanthropic work has been part of her life from a very young age. That meant – stemming from some personal childhood experiences – wanting to support the needs of children. As far back as middle school, Amina decided that she wanted to grow her family through adoption.
Amina, a first generation Pakistani American who lives in the suburbs of Washington D.C., co-founded (and serves as executive director for) BLOOM (Building Lives of Orphans from Morocco) Charity
after adopting her son and seeing first-hand how barren the lives of orphans and staff in Morocco was. With her educational background in public health and communications as well as maternal and child health, Amina could see how much the orphanages in Morocco needed support to better the lives of their orphans.
As part of our second annual “Women in Charity” series, I spoke with Amina about why she founded BLOOM and why it is so important for her and the BLOOM team to find ways to bring joy to and create sustaining partnerships for some of the most neglected individuals in our society – orphan children.
Tell me a little bit about yourself, your background and how you first got involved with BLOOM.
We always had a sense of giving back in my family. Due to personal childhood experiences, I felt passionate about supporting the needs of children and always wanted to grow my family through adoption. When I met my husband, this was one of the first topics I discussed with him. I knew it was a topic that is not always understood or well received, but it was important for me to make sure my spouse was also passionate about adoption. Alhamdullilah, [he] immediately got excited about the idea.
After having our first two biological children, we saved up to go through adoption for our third. Adoption is expensive and takes lots of time. I contacted a number of individuals who had gone through the process over the years to get some direction and help. We initially wanted to adopt from Pakistan. However, I continued hearing stories and knew this was not going to be the right route for me and my family. I also did not have luck domestically.
I was then connected with someone [who gone through the adoption process in Morocco several years prior to me]. At the time, in 2013, Morocco had stopped accepting adoption applications from the U.S. [because] some Christian families were adopting Muslim children and converting them. I worked with a grassroots movement to help establish the first Muslim faith-based adoption agency in the U.S.
I had the privilege of being one of the first people to adopt a child through the agency in July of 2015. Although that agency is now closed, it gave faith back to Moroccan officials to trust American Muslims to adopt.
What sparked your interest in working with and growing this charity organization?
A child plays in one of BLOOM Charity's Morocco-based playgardens.
Alhamdullilah, my sister and I went to Morocco, and I adopted my three-month-old son. My sister, who initially joined me to support me on my mission, ended up going back a year later to adopt her son. After visiting Morocco and seeing the dire situation of the orphans and staff, we knew we needed to do more. Many Moroccan children are not eligible for adoption due to lack of legal paperwork, so they end up spending their entire lives in the orphanages.
Many of them don’t have their basic human needs met, such as human interaction and social emotional needs. Although the orphanages are clean, they are not equipped with the necessary tools for the children to thrive. This has affected the ability of older children to adapt after adoption.
The Prophet Muhamad (saw) said, “I and the one who looks after an orphan will be like this in Paradise,” showing his middle and index fingers and separating them.
BLOOM's mission is to fill Moroccan orphanages with laughter, learning, hope and healing. November is actually our anniversary month (BLOOM just celebrated its 5th anniversary) and marks our 10th playgarden installed in the Moroccan orphanages. Through BLOOM Charity, we have been able to get to know the directors, staff and the orphans on a deeper level. We have been able to dissect their needs and offer services, funding and materials in order to help both the children as well as the staff thrive in their environment and work.
What types of programs and services does BLOOM offer?
We don’t follow a cookie cutter approach. Each situation is different, and the goal is to build a relationship and trust with the directors and staff [of each orphanage we work with]. We want to maintain a relationship and help them excel in their work, which will be directly reflected on the children they serve.
BLOOM also works with staff members to develop strategies in order to incorporate play into daily life. All of our services are encompassed in our Early Childhood Development and Educational Programs
that are targeted for the disadvantaged institutionalized orphan population in Morocco.
BLOOM Charity Co-Founder and Executive Director Amina Shams
[We] wanted to expand services, but then the pandemic hit. Instead we decided to focus on our Magical PlayGardens program
and our enrichment program. Our Magical PlayGardens program has averaged two playgrounds per year despite covid disruptions. This campaign “provides institutionalized Moroccan orphans with opportunities for unstructured outdoor experiences establishing sensory gardens and play spaces in Moroccan orphanages.”
In 2020 we established Morocco’s first fully handicap-accessible play space. Through this program we prioritize the value of play, mental health and equity in play. This playgarden especially has helped us break barriers, since many Moroccan officials did not understand this concept initially.
We are currently constructing a sports arena in the city of Essaouira. The basketball team in the orphanage there has won a national championship regardless of their lack of resources and practicing in a broken down court. We wanted to provide them with the equipment and area they need and deserve.
Free, unstructured play is the greatest gift we can give children; healthy, adventurous, curious children are the greatest gifts we can give society.
Our enrichment program provides children with the opportunity to go on field trips and host celebratory events, such as Eid and Ramadan celebrations. We also host sports activities, music classes, science, art, yoga, field trips to the beach, and various other extra curricular activities that are essential to the mental and social growth of the children.
We provide sensory rooms in orphanages and provide education on the concept that not all children can take play and sensory input all at once. We prioritize the importance of taking play space one at a time and at the child’s pace.
We are not just creating spaces but helping people understand how to use these spaces. We want to maximize the experience for all children but be aware that not all children can engage or benefit in the same way. Our goal is to train caregivers in trauma care and provide materials to help with early detection and prevention in order to increase the quality of life of the children. There is an ongoing relationship between us, the caregivers and the orphans once the gift of space is given.
Tell me about your first playgarden and how it came to be.
A rooftop playgarden constructed by BLOOM in Morocco.
The first playgarden BLOOM built was actually in the orphanage where my sister and I adopted our sons in Meknes, Morocco. The orphanage is actually on the top level of a hospital that has no outdoor space and is surrounded by concrete walls. The children live in the orphanage after they are abandoned until they are seven. Afterwards they are moved to another facility called the annex from which they begin attending public school.
BLOOM was able to transform the rooftop junkyard into a beautiful playgarden. We laid down green turf, installed slides and a playground as well as planting trees and flowers. All of this changed not only the temperament of the children but also the attitude of the caretakers. Now the caretakers are happier in their work environment and love to be at their job. They are now inspired to create their own activities with the children.
The caretakers are finding their own excuses to take the children to the rooftop playgarden and started the same concept downstairs in the hospital. The staff painted a mural onto the walls and changed the feel of the hospital for the children. There was a total shift in mindset from the administration down to the children.
The caretakers never saw their job as valuable or important, but once they felt empowered by the tools made available to them and saw the international support of their work, their mindset changed and the way they feel about their job and the value they bring to these children’s lives became more clear to them.
One specific story in our rooftop pilot project is about two boys who [were] restrained on a daily basis in order to go to bed. They were severely mentally disabled and were not provided with the right social or emotional support they needed. After installing the outdoor playgarden, they are playing, getting the fresh air their body needs, and the caretakers are happy.
For me, this is the only impact story I needed to hear. If it’s just changing the experience of these two boys, then my work at BLOOM is validated. There are stories upon stories [like this].
What were some challenges faced when you first started BLOOM?
Another playgarden constructed by BLOOM in Morocco.
Getting the buy-in from Moroccan officials was the most challenging aspect. When they first started to see the funds coming through, they wanted to divert them every which way; a play space was not a high priority. It took a lot of educating and a huge shift in mindset to help them understand the value of play and sensory development.
We had to stand our ground and stay true to our purpose. BLOOM's mission is very clear, focusing on mental health development. We wanted to teach the officials and caretakers about the importance of the long term mental health advantages as well as the neurological development and the social and emotional development of learning through play.
Our photographer, Khalid Allaoui, thanked us for hiring him to capture the grand opening of our pilot project in Meknes. He said “It was like watching birds being released from the cage.” He was so affected by just that experience that he is now a core member and photographer for our team.
When people can clearly see the impact, the buy-in comes. It was hard to convince people of the importance of play; it’s something we had to be firm about. One thing I didn’t want to do is come in with a savior mentality and put band aid solutions on complex problems. BLOOM empowers communities and stays with them for the long term. Nothing we provide can be taken away from these orphanages.
The spaces we create will benefit children in these institutions for years to come. BLOOM is a seed. You’re empowered now. Do what you can with it and flourish. That is the feeling and value behind BLOOM . People in Morocco really understand the value this organization brings to the lives of the orphans and orphanages as a whole. They say God loves beautiful things, we create beautiful spaces for children who deserve it more than any other children in the world.
What advice do you have for others to encourage them to make time for volunteer/charity work?
Plant the seed wherever you find the space. We’re each exposed to different needs and different experiences. Each of us are able to make a difference in whatever we’re doing in our life. It doesn’t have to be complex and can be very simple. If we are all looking at our lives and experiences in the lens of where can I plant a garden and make sadaqah jariyah (ongoing charity), this will go a long way and make a big difference in the lives of so many.
Leave magical dust experiences everywhere you go! Simple gestures and acts of kindness go a long way. Beautifying someone’s life and lived experience is an extremely valuable thing to do.
To learn more about BLOOM Charity, please visit their website. They are also running a donation campaign in honor of their fifth birthday.